Strategic Error for Burma's Opposition?

After 22 years of military rule without a constitution, the Burmese state is gearing up to hold a parliamentary general election later this year. There has been little doubt that these polls would be highly managed by the junta government, but the final indicator of this came in late March, when the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) decided not to re-register the party to take part in the election. The decision will end the party' s existence as a legal entity on 7 May, following the end of a stipulated 60-day registration period.

Little is publicly known of the exact reasoning behind the party's decision, beyond a 6 April press release. This stated that the party had concluded that it would not re-register due to the recently unveiled election laws, which it termed “unfair and unjust”. Among the new election regulations is the Political Parties Registration Law, which bars from the electoral process the more than 2000 political prisoners languishing in Burmese jails. These include the country' s key democratic leadership, such as the head of the NLD, Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as ethnic Shan leader Khun Htun Oo and student leader Min Ko Naing.

Yet in this context it is important to note that during the past 20 years, not a single one of the NLD' s political goals have been met – political dialogue with the military for national reconciliation, honoring the 1990 election result, the release of all political prisoners, withdrawing the military from politics, etc. If this cumulative failure is behind the party' s boycott decision, a firm adherence to the political integrity of the NLD leadership, particularly Suu Kyi, has led to the party' s demise, at least for now.

Whether this decision is strategically sound has become a contentious issue among NLD supporters and members alike, and debates have erupted within what is generally a fairly restrained membership. The disappearance from politics of the NLD – a party that was founded during the 1988 people' s movement, and whose members have carried high the flag of democracy since then – would clearly be a great loss, particularly given its record of maintaining both its strength and unity without major divisions during the past two decades.

With the impending exit of the NLD, the political scene is already shifting to newly registered parties in the pre-election period. Even so, the absence of the NLD from the ballot will make the electoral exercise far less credible. In addition, the polls will almost certainly not improve Burma' s relations with the regional and international community, and the sanctions imposed by the US and EU will remain in place.

In the post-election political scenario, should the NLD somehow reconstitute itself as some type of organized or ad hoc movement, it will find itself dealing with a new parliament and government, not just the military junta. In this scenario, the NLD would have to deal with the new multi-party parliament, which, due to military pressure, could make the NLD irrelevant by opposing its activities. Second, the military could easily manipulate the new legislature body in the absence of a strong opposition party.

By the time Suu Kyi is released – an event currently slated for November – the election exercise will have been completed. But in contrast to her situation during previous releases, she will have no official party platform from which to conduct her political affairs.

Though the NLD has not publicly revealed its plans to date, there is little doubt that the democratic movement will continue in some form under Suu Kyi' s leadership. It is, however, far from certain whether the movement will be able to maintain the support of the people in a situation in which they can only initiate political and social movements at the grassroots level. As things stand in Burma, it is near impossible to form and operate an association, social or political, without registration. And this barrier will undoubtedly remain in place, given that to date no existing law has been repealed. Following the election, the new government could well bar all groups outside the legal framework from undertaking political activities, arguing that ruling and opposition parties already exist in parliament.

Missed opportunities

Given these difficult considerations, it is tempting to consider what might have been if Suu Kyi and the NLD had decided to contest the election. Indeed, in some people' s view, such a decision could well have altered the course of Burmese politics. First, had the NLD taken such a step, its first action should have been to apologize to the people for its inability to bring about a democratic transition, just as it did it after announcing that it would not seek to re-register. The people would have understood the political realities, especially in light of the NLD actually winning the majority of seats in the 1990 general election, as well as due to its consistent work to bring about national reconciliation since then. Second, if the NLD had participated, it could have used its increased influence to push the junta to release some political prisoners, the chances of which are now much lower.

Third, the NLD could have maintained its political stance of not accepting the constitution approved in 2008, by pledging to the people that it was committed to amending its undemocratic sections. In the current context, discussion of the constitution has largely ended at the political level. Finally, with effective political coalitions (which would be vital, given that constitutional amendments will require more than 75 percent of the vote), the election laws and other repressive security laws might have been repealed or amended in the new parliament with a majority vote.

While all these arguments are based on the unlikely assumption that the junta will allow the system to function semi-democratically, the point is that politics is a process, with no clearly demarcated beginning or end. Things will undoubtedly not be easy in post-election Burmese politics, but Burma badly needs an opposing voice within the government structure, which has been lacking for decades. The NLD' s decision not to contest the election will prolong this situation.

In this way, the NLD could have maintained its political role, even in the face of an undemocratic playing field and in the absence of the rule of law. If the election does turn out to be relatively free, the people would again have voted for NLD candidates. In this context, though, while the election might be ' free' in that the Burmese people might be able to vote for the candidate and party of their choice, it will almost certainly not be fair, in that the publicly announced outcome is likely to be manipulated by the junta – the exact scenario that played out in the 1990 election.

After all, the Burmese people love and respect Suu Kyi, whose political integrity and credibility easily trumps that of the military generals, who ordered Buddhist monks killed during the 2007 demonstrations and are widely known to be corrupt. Further, although the party-registration laws bar current prisoners from belonging to a political party, Suu Kyi could have resumed membership, and leadership, of the NLD immediately after her release. After all, as a major political party, the NLD would have had a firm place in parliament.

Even if, as widely expected, the new civilian government turns out to be the military' s puppet, the NLD could have played the role of a ' truth-teller' in parliament, by closely monitoring corruption and abuse of power. Such a scenario, if it could have come to pass, would have made it harder for the government to restrict the voice of Suu Kyi, who could then have more easily guided society towards a genuine democracy while at the same time playing a role in improving Burma' s international relations. Moreover, the NLD offices across the country could have led a people' s movements to repeal unjust laws.

A time for others?

Now, none of that will come to pass – at least not through the official agency of the NLD. All the same, it cannot be ruled out that other players on the political scene will undertake a similar role and, with luck, perhaps accomplish similar goals. Of the 19 political parties currently applying to contest the elections, only three – including the former ruling socialist National Unity Party (NUP) – contested the 1990 polls. It is therefore impossible to gauge the degree of commitment to democracy that the many new faces might exhibit.

For the moment, however, General Than Shwe will clearly find it easier to pursue his seven-step political ' roadmap' , and the multi-party ' disciplined democracy' that the general intends to create will be put in place. But these parties, due to the structure of the new parliament and constitution, will be weak and in no position to threaten the military and its power structure. The NLD, with its long history of protest, could well have led the legal parliamentary battle to change the constitution.

Whatever shape the new government takes, there is little doubt that it will closely watch former NLD members. Indeed, in the current situation, any effort on the part of former members that appears to threaten political stability, whether real or perceived, could lead to charges of violating election laws, which restrict political activities to members of registered parties. In an extreme circumstance, the Election Commission could even pass a law to prohibit all registered political parties from engaging in activities with former NLD members. In this way, the military will use a divide-and-rule strategy to continue to isolate the opposition.

Likewise, there is no doubt that Suu Kyi will still be considered a threat by the military regime, even if, as currently expected, she is let out from prison. If she finds a way to rally people power once again into a full social movement, she will likely find herself under detention for a fourth time. Though things may well look different on the surface after the elections, they are likely to remain more or less the same – though without the longstanding infrastructure of the NLD.

Htet Aung is chief reporter at the election desk of the Thailand-based The Irrawaddy.